The NASCAR Cup Series ends its West Coast Swing with a pivotal trip to Phoenix Raceway, building the notebook for this fall’s championship race.
Cup teams tested the Next Gen car at the 1-mile, D-shaped oval in late January, the final test before the 2022 season began. Martin Truex Jr. was victorious in March 2021 and was part of the Championship 4 chasing a title last November. But it was Kyle Larson who claimed his first Cup championship and first win at Phoenix when the series last visited to end the season.
Three races into the new year, it’s time to see who’s building momentum and who’s falling behind entering Phoenix Raceway for Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX).
The more things change…
To the shock of very few, the elite teams in NASCAR remain elite. Team Penske and Hendrick Motorsports are the lone programs to score victories in this young season, and Joe Gibbs Racing found two of its drivers — Truex and Kyle Busch — duking it out for the apparent win before a late caution in Las Vegas.
Drivers are quickly learning how to balance their cars on the edge of control — some quicker than others. And the best teams in the sport tend to feature the best wheelmen too. Maybe that’s why Larson, Truex, Joey Logano, Daytona 500 winner Austin Cindric and Busch hold the top five points positions too.
Three races, new faces
On the contrary, these first three Cup races have displayed the most parity in nearly 50 years.
Twenty-five drivers with top 10s thus far is an astounding number. And while the faces highest among the leaderboard have been from familiar teams, take a look around at who else has been competitive. In consecutive weeks, winless drivers Tyler Reddick (90, Auto Club) and Ross Chastain (83, Vegas) have led the most laps respectively.
Erik Jones, driving the No. 43 Chevrolet for Petty GMS Motorsports, has the second-best average running position in the series at 11.111, according to NASCAR’s loop data statistics. Sixth in that category is JTG-Daugherty Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at 12.127.
The Next Gen car has shown that driver talent matters — at least for now. Surely, the sport’s aforementioned powerhouses will remain as such and might weed out the pretenders from the contenders in short order. But what a start for the other guys so far.
Fresh configuration, fresh winners
In the seven races since the start/finish line was moved to the exit of what was previously Turn 2, six different drivers have gone to victory lane.
That list includes Larson and Chase Elliott, the past two winners of the fall race to claim their first career titles. The only driver to repeat on the current configuration is Busch, who won the fall 2018 and spring 2019 events. But for all the different faces in victory lane, only three organizations have gone to Victory Lane: Hendrick Motorsports (Larson and Elliott), Joe Gibbs Racing (Busch, Truex and Hamlin) and Team Penske, which got there via Joey Logano’s triumph in spring 2020.
Leading? Not for long
If you like lead changes, you might like this weekend’s race in Phoenix. Eight of the last 10 races there have featured at least 15 lead changes.
The Next Gen car has provided plenty of opportunity to pass for the lead through three races, evidenced by 35 lead changes at Daytona, 32 at Auto Club and 23 at Las Vegas. That trend seems very likely to continue Sunday in Phoenix.
Down to the wire
All three races this season have come down to restarts within the final four laps, including overtime periods at both Daytona and Las Vegas. The final pass for the lead? That’s happened in the final 10 laps all three weeks too.
Leading the most laps has not netted a win yet in 2022, as Brad Keselowski, Reddick and Chastain have learned. Who knows? Maybe that changes this weekend in Phoenix.
The 36 chartered teams make up the entry list for Sunday’s Rouff Mortgage 500 at Phoenix Raceway.
On the Xfinity Series entry list are 42 competitors. Only 38 spots are available, so four teams will fail to qualify.
The Cup Series is back to its regularly planned practice format this weekend in Phoenix with a slight tweak. Teams will be able to practice for 20 minutes, separated into Group A and Group B based on a calculated metric that factors fastest laps, points positions and results from the previous week’s race. The 20-minute session is a five-minute increase from NASCAR’s original schedule.
After practice, each group will participate in single-car, single-lap qualifying. The five fastest teams from each group will advance to the second round for another single-lap effort to compete for the pole position.
The Xfinity Series will allow all teams to practice in its 30-minute session before single-car, single-lap and single-round qualifying.
This weekend’s schedule and forecast
(All times Eastern)
Friday, March 11
Forecast: Sunny, high of 73 degrees, low of 45 degrees
- 4 p.m. — ARCA practice/qualifying
- 7:30 p.m. — ARCA race (MAVTV, FloRacing, MRN)
Saturday, March 12
Forecast: Mostly sunny, high of 78 degrees, low of 50 degrees
- 11:30 a.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
- 12 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)
- 1:30 p.m. — Cup practice (FS1, MRN)
- 2:05 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1, MRN)
- 4:30 p.m. — Xfinity race (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
Sunday, March 13
Forecast: Mostly sunny, high of 81 degrees, low of 52 degrees
- 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)